I remember my disappointment well–an opportunity in college to write about a difficult life experience resulted in a mediocre “B.” No grammatical errors in the paper, only a comment from my beloved professor that she didn’t think I had quite worked through the experience to write effectively about it. My efforts as an English major to write about the challenges of a cancer diagnosis as a teenager in the spring of 1975 were ineffective and had not particularly enlightened her. I had tried to write descriptively but held my emotions close and had not explored very well the core of the experience: lingering fear in spite of healed scars and a clean bill of health.
At the time of that writing, seven years after a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis, I had passed the 5-year milestone for possible recurrence, yet was in no way confident enough to describe one of the most pivotal experiences of my life. Having cancer as a teenager can brand you as unhealthy and challenged me at a young age, and in a small town where news travels quickly, to move beyond the imposed limitations and uncertainties that a cancer diagnosis brings. Support groups were not standard fare in the 1970s. My amazing parents, who had already experienced the devastating loss of a son, moved through the details with great faith and strength, yet people seldom spoke openly about cancer and, in my small town, children certainly didn’t have cancer.
As I moved into my adult years of marriage and motherhood, I nicely tucked the entire experience away and seldom discussed it with anyone. However, I was quietly aware of the gravity of my earlier illness and each spring brought back for me poignant memories of losing long strands of blonde hair and struggling to integrate a cancer diagnosis as a teenager during critical, formative years.
Pursuing a position at The Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation in 2002, I felt compelled to get involved in work that allowed me to revisit the impact of that young experience and to share information about my lengthy survivorship with other survivors. The Foundation enabled me to find work that mattered to me personally and to give back to cancer survivors who visited our Patient Resource Center–giving back for my gratititude in having survived an illness long ago, an illness that had almost become surreal during my adult years. But as most cancer survivors will admit, one of the most difficult obstacles in healing is overcoming the fear of recurrence. I had survived the illness but, throughout the years, had not conquered the fear…it continually simmered in the back of my mind. How would I ever be able to cope with another cancer diagnosis, were it ever to occur again? Most significant to me was the fact that, as a mother, the stakes would be even higher if I had to face cancer again. How would I share that with my three daughters?
One cold, mid-winter morning in January 2003, several inches of rapidly falling snow and ice sent commuters and school buses out onto treacherous roads in panic. The city was virtually paralyzed in every direction, and heroic drivers later shared stories of spending 5 to 6 challenging hours in their cars trying to reach their driveways safely before running out of gas or losing contact via cell phones.
I’ll never forget that overwhelming snowstorm–I worried about the safety of my family and friends as everyone scrambled to catch the most logical ride home. Yet, I reveled in the fact that my annual check-up and mammogram would, of course, be cancelled and that I could postpone that dreaded encounter for months…maybe I would reschedule for the summer months. After all, what was the hurry, there was nothing pressing that I had to go for. Within a few days, however, my doctor’s office was calling and leaving reminder messages that I needed to reschedule. I knew she was right so I reluctantly rescheduled for the next month although I had had a lifelong tendency to avoid medical visits when I could.
During that rescheduled mammogram following the snowstorm, I had a second cancer diagnosis, a breast cancer diagnosis, almost 28 years to the day of the first diagnosis in 1975 and one year after beginning work at The Foundation. This second diagnosis forced a coming to terms with the fear that had stalked me for years. In disbelief, I heard the radiologist describe a suspicious area. The smell of hospital linens conjured vivid memories of earlier hospital stays, and the sickening and all-too-familiar nausea of fear gripped me. Transitioning back to cancer treatment was, indeed, emotional and powerful because my lingering fear had become reality. However, this time around, I was the adult in charge of my choices, I focused on each phase at hand, and I was determined to move through the treatment as normally as possible, if not for me, for the sake of my family.
Thankfully, once again, I was offered the profound gift of hope that my prognosis was positive, a humbling gift that has twice enriched my life and crystallized the wisdom that no day be taken for granted. The twist in my story, having a second confrontation with cancer while working in essentially the prototype for cancer patient support, seemed far more than coincidental. Reaching out to other survivors as I once again healed myself has offered great peace, powerful emotions, and relationships for life. My work at the Foundation and my cancer experiences are now so intertwined that I cannot speak about one without the other.
An obvious lesson in my story is that women should never ignore following through on mammograms. I don’t dare think my prognosis and length of treatment had I not rescheduled that mammogram. An even more profound lesson I learned the second time around is that fear really doesn’t have a place in my life anymore because of the love and grace from my friends, my parents and sister, and my cherished husband and daughters, who assured me that, no matter what, we would face the diagnosis together. Their support dissolved the fear I had allowed to have too much power. Opening up to those cancer experiences, sharing my story, finding meaningful work at The Foundation, and becoming proactive about my health have freed me from that old foe, fear of cancer. I now know that my college writing experience from so long ago was ineffective simply because my story was in no way complete. Oddly enough, facing one of my greatest fears was essentially what freed me. What once attempted to claim my energy and to intimidate my self-confidence has been replaced by hope and peace.